CHANGES TO THE LEGEND
These ballads were cheap and could be purchased by just about anyone. They weren't great works of literature. In fact, unlike the surviving medieval ballads, they were meant to be sung rather than read. In the opening stanzas of many broadside ballads we find words indicating the tune, such as "With a hey down down a down down" or "Hey down derry derry down."
Some street ballads embellished old medieval tales. For example, the idea of Robin making a final shot and asking to be buried where the arrow landed as added to a medieval story about The Death of Robin Hood . Many told tales of harmless combat, which Holt thinks may have been inspired by the May Games.
Several ballads follow a simple formula. Robin meets stranger (usually a tradesman); Robin picks a fight; Robin gets the crap kicked out of him; Robin blows his horn for help and asks the stranger to join his band. Sure, there's a medieval ballad where Robin Hood and Little John are defeated by a potter . But when the Merry Men get their butts kicked by the butcher, the tanner , the pindar , the tinker , and every other sort of common worker, you have to wonder why it is that the sheriff is having such a tough time with the outlaw. Robin had his skull cracked so many times, you'd think he wouldn't have the wits to outwit a village idiot, let alone the sheriff.
But then, that's the great joy of these tales. Robin Hood is a man of the people and commoners can beat him easily. Elements from the plays, like his new well-to-do background as an earl or his love Maid Marian rarely appear in these tales.
Something else happened in this period. New ballads were being written -- origin stories. In the medieval ballads, Little John and the rest were always outlaws. We never found out how they joined the band. Now, the stories could be told.
Robin meets Little John or Will Scarlet (who had become a Gamwell, and Robin's cousin) or a disguised Marian . Robin picks a fight. John or Will or Marian kicks the crap out of Robin. Robin invites them to join the band.
One member of the Merry Men who doesn't fight Robin Hood, Alan a Dale , is a character new to the legend. The minstrel showed up asking Robin to rescue his lover (there's a reference to an early version where Will Scarlet is the distraught lover, not Alan). The story was popular enough that Alan a Dale's managed to stick around as a part-time member of the Merry Men.
Another new character was Will Stutely , who Robin rescues in a ballad. Stutely shows up in many Robin Hood books, but he never quite achieves the pop culture stardom of Alan a Dale or the more important band members. But still, he pops up more often these days than Clorinda, the shepherdess lover of Robin in tales like Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage .
While Clorinda didn't become a regular part of the Robin Hood canon (only appearing in a few stage productions), many of these broadside ballads did. The ballad collections were later adapted into prose "Lives" and later children's novels.
The broadside ballads may stood the test of time, but they were shorter and less sophisticated than some of the early ballads. 19th century ballad collector Francis Child deplores the drop in quality. For example, of Robin Hood and the Monk, Child wrote "Too much could not be said in praise of this ballad, but nothing need be said. It is very perfection in its kind." ( The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, vol. III (of the 5-volume edition, p.95) Now contrast that with his description of the 17th century ballad Robin Hood and the Tinker. "The fewest words will best befit this contemptible imitation of imitations." (p.127).
Many ballads also found their way to North America. For example, a version of Robin Hood and Little John survives in Virginia. And several ballads survived in Canada's east coast. For example, Bertrand Harris Bronson laments the survival of the lesser ballad Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon (or Oregon in the Canadian version) in "forty-six rather deplorable stanzas". Still this ballad is shorter than the English version, and several lines are slightly different. This ballad was recorded in 1928 by George Herzog, "learned from his father sixty years before".
In Canada, the ballads survived through such an oral tradition. Ballad collector Helen Creighton found some Robin Hood ballads from Nova Scotia. These include Robin Hood and Little John (more like the British version than the American one), two versions of Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood (or Pedlar Bold). There are also two tunes for Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham, but even by combining stanzas from both versions, Creighton only found four surviving verses. What the Nova Scotian folk musicians remembered was Robin brutally slaying the foresters and then hacking off the arms and limbs of Nottingham townspeople. Obviously the blood-and-thunder moments held the most appeal.
North America's contribution to the legend grew far beyond this oral folk tradition.
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Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2010.